A cocktail doesn’t have to involve a dozen ingredients and cost a fortune. Some of the classics only require a base alcohol, a dash of fruit juice, and some ice. Don’t be afraid to substitute and modify drink recipes to fit whatever you have on hand.

Cocktails are built around a base spirit. It is usually the most expensive component of the drink, so start with what you already have, or are in the mood for. If you’re planning a party, stick to one base spirit. You can make a wide variety of cocktails from any of them, and it gives gatherings a sense of coherency (and saves you some cash).

Flavorings shouldn’t overpower or mask the flavor of the spirits. Instead, look for flavors that highlight or complement the characteristics of your favorite alcohol.

  • Fruit juices work well with neutral spirits like tequila, vodka and white rum. Citrus pairs well with spiced rum. 
  • Muddled herbs, such as sage and anise, highlight the flavor notes in gin or absinthe. 
  • A dash or two of bitters adds a subtle flavor boost to most drinks. Keep a bottle of Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters on hand to spice up your cocktails.

One-half to 1 part of sweetener to 1 part spirits smooths out the drink. If you add fruit juice as a flavoring the sweet component is already present so there’s no need to add extra sugar. Use these common cocktail sweeteners:

  • Simple syrup — made from 2 parts sugar dissolved in 1 part water.
  • Honey
  • Agave syrup
  • Grenadine

Want a cocktail without the experimentation? Opt for these time-tested classics: